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Writers Of The Purple Mage
Idle generic reflections on character by Robert Hood

The day sits outside the window like a neglected spaniel. I scowl at it. I turn back to my desk, but the spaniel doesn't go away. I can hear it whimpering.

Investigators live solitary lives.

Where in the case before me, I wonder, does the truth lie? Creating the characters that are an essential part of the mechanics of a story is a matter of projection, of empathic connection with a verbal construct. But the constructive process itself is an individual thing, using building blocks taken from a life that stretches into the past and lying all around me in the present. My own.

In genre writing - and I would argue that most, if not all, fiction writing is genre writing, with its own expectations and ambience - stock characters that fit into stock situations and represent stock attitudes are available to the writer. These can be drawn upon. Perhaps must be drawn upon. They provide a framework for the creative act, and as such are as much a tool as the words used to re-create them for the reader.

That genre writing offers such pre-set structures or tropes is a useful thing to know. As writers we must be familiar with them. They help overcome the basic alienation that exists between a writer and a reader by offering a mutually accepted framework. But that's not the end of it.

Characters within a genre story, say a tale of crime, that never make it beyond the pre-existing structures can offer a certain comfort if the rest of the tale is threateningly original. But generally they just come over as tired, predictable and unconvincing. In short, merely as stock characters and cliches. There's no creative energy. We've all met the disheveled cop who recites Wordsworth at moments of stress. Or the scrawny wisecracking informant. Or the femme fatale whose only motivation seems to be to lead the world-weary PI further into a web of teasing sexuality.

They were all original once. They worked, as characters, in a context that was as much a part of their character as their crumpled trenchcoat or alabaster skin. It was their success in that context that turned them into genre elements. Success put them up for grabs by subsequent writers. But the trick now is to mould each old character into a dynamic that fits the new context. To make them live. To convince the reader of their inner reality. That's the hard bit.

That's where the job becomes dangerous.


Entering the dungeon laboratory, I feel the hair on the back of my neck twitch. Unfamiliar objects litter the shelves around the room's dank walls. From somewhere beyond cold stone I hear the thud of a dying heartbeat.

Or perhaps it is a heartbeat on the verge of life.

Who is the 'hero' (as in protagonist, or point-of-view character)? The young military officer who has stumbled upon this lair of obscene creation? The mad scientist intent on foisting his own insane vision upon an unsuspecting world? The blonde niece, held prisoner somewhere in the ruins? The evil creation whose very life-breath is a moral outrage to the community into which he has been unwittingly born?

They're all cliches (thanks to the success of Frankenstein and the innumerable mad scientist stories that it spawned), but whether any of them (not just the monster) come to new life will depend on the author's ability to take the reader somewhere new through them.

Decisions regarding perspective will affect the reader's response to these characters as genre elements. Do we sympathise? Do we understand (as distinct from approve of) their motivations? Do we feel that these particular events happen because of these characters and could have arisen under the auspices of no others?

The reader has to be convinced that the characters are more than tagged-on plot decorations. They have to have an inner reality, a presence that suggests they are an essential part of the story, while existing apart from it. Just like people in real life. This is despite the fact that in many genre stories the central interest lies with the plot rather than the characters that play it out. The two aren't separable in fact. Even in a short story where no extensive character detail is given, the characters need to suggest a longer timeframe than the immediate timeframe in which the plot functions. They are not in themselves stock genre elements, though for a moment their reality coincides with the genre needs of the story.

That's what it must seem like anyway.

The reader must see the genre structure through their eyes, not as an artificial, pre-existing construct.


Mid-morning. The coffee shop's empty of customers, except for myself and one other. Busyness seems to infuse it anyway. A caffeine ambience. It saturates the few words spoken. "Latte please." "Nice day, isn't it?" "I'll try the blueberry muffin." Meaningless, utilitarian words. No distinctive character.

I take in the details of the other person over my flat white. Young, with a haggard weariness about her eyes and shoulders. She looks like she didn't come to this place freely but was beached here. Her ear-rings are plentiful but plain. She has a scar along the side of her chin.

The devil's in the detail.

Characters, beyond the cliche, are made up of details. A cliche is single-facetted, described in generalised words that are given, not owned. Or in no words. They are merely the cliche and nothing more. They connect with nothing in their environment. The Dark Man. The Abused Woman. Tall. Handsome. Blonde…

But a well-chosen detail can make a stock character live.


Meanwhile, leaving his first mate to decelerate their cargo freighter out of hyperdrive, the Master Hunter did a quick inventory of creatures he'd snatched from planets across the galaxy. Most of them were oddly humanoid or reminiscent of terran lifeforms. They partook of familiar, if somewhat warped, character types.

This is not surprising, of course. In order to give alien characters an air of reality - a personality that the reader can recognise - writers tend to think in the pre-existing structures that are the building blocks of the familiar world. Change them about, sure. Take characteristics from here and there, splice them together, mould, clone, mix and genetically engineer, and you end up with something that gives a feeling of alienness but which can also be comprehended and to which the reader can relate. Stick a woman's head on a snake's body. Multiply appendages. Turn the skin green. Make the eyes dangle on stalks. Whatever. At least the reader can recognise it.

Where SF writers try to create genuinely alien creatures (and even this is relative), such characters threaten never to come alive. Where they do, such creation has to be the central interest of the story - and must, of course, be offset by more recognisably human characters or the writer risks so alienating the reader from the story that no imaginative engagement takes place.

It's a pretty tough game. Yet in a way, no tougher than any act of character creation. After all, what is a character in a work of fiction?

Like the aliens I referred to above, every character is an amalgamation of elements taken from here and there - from the writer's memory, people he or she has met, characters from books - and then combined, twisted together, extrapolated to form something new. A quality of perception. Scraps of physical appearance. The way they laugh. Their aggressive or placating manner. Motivation. Idiosyncrasies of speech. Whatever.

Writers always do the Divine-Creator bit, but it is a Frankenstein form of creation: it doesn't take place from scratch but by the re-combination and re-vivification of pre-existing elements. The resulting chimera may live or may be abortive.

The determining factor is the writer's ability to give cohesion to the mixture, to ensure that the disparate elements make sense together and in each particular story context. The imaginative power of the Word.


The Purple Mage surveyed the stark, convoluted terrain with an otherworldly intensity. Vast, strange creatures moved in the forests and lakes, and beyond, where the mountains gave way to a turbulent expanse of ocean, the crowded bustle of the state's largest port provided evidence that civilisation had found a foothold even into this wild landscape. Now this world, for good or ill, was on the brink of disaster. The Mage knew it and the knowledge tired him. He had seen it so many times before. Would he have the strength to stop the coming apocalypse?

Maybe. They usually do, such mystical heroes.

But whether or not the reader cares enough to follow the struggle will depend on the strength of the characterisation, of the protagonists, of the land's inhabitants, of the land itself, of the many plot elements that go into the construction of the story.

Can the reader believe that, within the context created, this land, this city, this Mage, this monster have a reality that makes sense and is both connected to and independent from the plot being forged?

Is enough idiosyncratic detail provided?

Does the character transcend the moment? Like lands, cities, worlds and monsters in fantasy stories, characters in all genres must have backgrounds, histories that are more-or-less developed in the story (depending upon its nature and length). This helps give the reader a literary sense that the characters have a reality that extends beyond the bare requirements of the genre.

To the extent that this is true, fictionalising 'real' or historical figures gives a psychological advantage. However, in the end, whether it's Napoleon, struggling artist as a young woman, hardboiled gumshoe or hobbit, it doesn't matter. The writer's task is the same: to take the bare bones, the genre pattern, the historical knowledge, the cliché - and to give it a lively and individual interpretation that readers can relate to and take into themselves.

It's a daunting task.

It always is.

Ask Dr Frankenstein.

Or the Purple Mage.


© 2002 Robert Hood


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